Born Detroit, 1991/ Lives in Detroit
“WE EXIST / THE FUTURE IS FLUID,” declared a billboard installed on Detroit’s east side in Spring 2020. In the bold design, styled to look like a neon sign at night, the words curled around the prominent central focus: the word “WE,” huge and proud in pink.
Designed by Bakpak Durden, the billboard was both a work of art and a promotion for a project that the artist co-curated: a citywide exhibition of five billboard artworks by queer and gender-nonconforming artists. (An accompanying gallery show would have included work by five more artists, but was canceled due to COVID19.) The centrality of the first person plural in We Exist points to something fundamental about Durden, a self-taught artist who identifies as transgender: their painstaking image-making is but one part of a broader effort to raise up the queer community they are a part of.
At the heart of this pursuit is Durden’s own art practice, which includes painting, illustration, and documentary photography, and which is rooted in a love of storytelling—of the small detail from which a viewer is invited to build a narrative. Durden says that when painting, they are processing ongoing struggles relating to mental health, identity, and gender concerns, and their hope is that viewers will pick up the trail, relate, and take the opportunity to self-reflect. Not This Again (2018) and The Refrigerator (2020), for instance, are two powerful self-portraits in which the artist depicts their body at the mercy of depression.
As in many of Durden’s paintings, the moody, high contrast realism of both works evokes Baroque masters like Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and van Eyck, all of whom Durden studied when, a few years ago, they set out to learn oil painting. But if the methods hearken to archaic styles, the figures are decidedly contemporary, and are depicted in relation to the artist’s trademark floating triangles and lines. Triangles tend to subtly transcribe Durden’s figures, as well as the inanimate objects that function as identity markers or representations of emotional states (as in Self Portrait: Backpack and Self Portrait: Control, both 2019). Durden uses these geometric elements to mark distinct zones in their compositions, bringing to mind transition, process, or states of in-between-ness. (The artist notes the triangle’s relationship with the ancient Greek letter Delta, which signifies change in science and mathematics.)
In Not This Again, the figure seems to pass headfirst through the triangle at the center of the image. Compositionally, the transition is between the full color of the left side and the black and white area to the right, around the figure’s head and shoulders. A single line, meanwhile, maps their downward glance at the same time it seems almost to penetrate the neck and head. The change documented here is to the painful depressive state that the subject is entering, rendered as an abrupt transition to a world devoid of color.
Durden’s quest to connect with others by making elements of their private experience public has led to several eye-catching murals around the city, including I Really Wanted to Stay Home (2018), A Constellation in Winter (2019), and The Eyo (2019). Most striking of these is The Eyo, painted on the south facing wall of Yum Village, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant on Woodward.
When Durden first met Yum Village’s Godwin Ihentuge, the restaurateur described himself as “African-made and Detroit-raised,” words that resonated with Durden, who doesn’t know much about their ancestry but who knows, at least, that they are of Afro-Caribbean descent. This led the artist to research traditional customs of the Yoruba people, from which they gleaned the vivid imagery of shrouded figures in a ritual dance. If The Eyo represents Durden’s attempt to imaginatively reconnect with a lost cultural heritage, it gains additional meaning when viewed with the artist’s intersectional identity in mind. Armed with staffs, the dancers’ movements seem as much defensive as ceremonial, and by depicting them in their billowy, head-to-toe costumes, Durden notably obscures any sign of their gender. Perhaps these performers are also guards, warding off oppressive norms regulating strictly binary gender expression.
A more overt nod in this direction can be seen in A Constellation in Winter, painted on the west side headquarters of local advocacy organization LGBT Detroit. Modeled by the artist and their partner, the mural depicts two figures of indeterminate gender, cropped so that their heads are out of frame and colored so that their clasped hands are emphasized. “The importance of this composition,” Durden says, “is that it’s two people, period. And they are in love, period.” The artist’s eloquent, elegant gesture is simply to remove gender from this story, and in so doing, to present a rare public vision of love that transcends the binary.
Matthew Piper, October 2020
Copyright Essay’d 2020